Unleashing Opportunity

By Abby SkeansIn their recent work, Unleashing Opportunity: Why Escaping Poverty Requires a Shared Vision of Justice, Center for Public Justice author team, Michael Gerson, Stephanie Summers, and Katie Thompson explore five issues of concern through a lens of faith that seeks to promote human flourishing for all.The authors clearly approach each issue of justice with a foundational understanding of Kuyperian sphere sovereignty. Espoused by the notable early 20th century Dutch statesman, theologian, and reformer Abraham Kuyper, sphere sovereignty posits that each sphere of life has its own distinct responsibilities and authority or competence, and stands equal to other spheres of life. Sphere sovereignty involves the idea of an all encompassing created order, designed and governed by God. This created order includes societal communities, such as education, worship, civil justice, agriculture, economy and labor, artistic expression, etc. The principle of sphere sovereignty seeks to affirm and respect creational boundaries, and historical differentiation and implies that no one area of life or societal community is sovereign over another. With this understanding in mind, the authors propose a consistent frame for engaging each of the five issues they tackle, including: early childhood, foster care, juvenile justice, the graduation gap, and predatory lending. Although derived from a faithful understanding of society, the triune frame is a helpful guide regardless of spiritual or religious belief, understanding, or adherence: First, “image” encourages individuals to bestow inherent dignity upon others and treat them with respect as a result -- all lives have equal value, therefore, humans are compelled to seek the flourishing of the other, regardless of origin, perceived differences, etc. simply because they bear the imprint of a perfect, common Creator. Second, “structure” celebrates the diversity that sphere sovereignty is built upon. Each sector of the community (government, church, business, family, etc.) is uniquely endowed with resources and responsibilities to interact appropriately with the other sector, creating a thriving ecosystem which seeks the betterment of the humans who rely upon it for survival. Within this structure, one part of the community is not condemned or celebrated more than another, each is acknowledged and revered for its place and purpose. Thirdly, “wisdom” acknowledges insight as a divine gift that is bestowed upon humanity to execute structure and value image. Although the authors don’t go so far, one might argue for an extension of this wisdom beyond a community of Christians through the mechanism of common grace. A theological concept which asserts that grace is common because its benefits are experienced by, or intended for, the whole human race without distinction between one person and another, and grace because it is undeserved and sovereignly bestowed by God. Arguably, the wisdom that is provided within the frame may be gracefully extended to humanity for the purpose of social benefit. Through a careful exploration of each area of concern, the authors provide a compelling and data-heavy case for disrupting systems of violence, neglect, and injustice that disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable of our society: low income individuals and families, foster children, single parents, communities of color, and those who lack access to education. In doing so, they not only offer us the helpful framework discussed above, but also uncover each concern as not only an “issue” to be discussed by policy makers, advocates, and practitioners, but also palpable human stories which deserve our pause, consideration, compassion, and ultimately, action.  Early ChildhoodA discussion of early childhood finds that although high-quality preschool matters significantly for the social, emotional, and intellectual trajectory of a child, high-quality parenting matters most. Change of heart and behavior always wins over institutional reform whenever the most vulnerable stand to lose the most, and early childhood is no exception. As a result, the book admonishes citizens to “advocate and work with government to ensure that public policies are designed to support a diversity of programs that empower low-income families to fulfill their responsibilities” and the faith community is called upon to “offer programs that serve these families in such a way” that children can escape poverty.  Foster CareIt will come of no surprise to most that the foster children in this country are largely unseen. This anonymity makes them particularly vulnerable trafficking, sexual assault, and ongoing physical, mental, and emotional abuse. However, a family committing to fostering a child can seem like a daunting request to some, and an impossible one for others who find themselves unmarried or with limited resources of time and money. The authors answer this hand-wringing and shoulder-shrugging with the recommendation that individuals consider becoming a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) to accompany the nearly four-hundred thousand children who go it alone every year. Juvenile Justice A discussion of children who are incarcerated often inspires compassionate head nodding, but whenever one is confronted with the reality that 70 to 80 percent of formerly incarcerated youth are rearrested within a year of release and 66 percent of juveniles who are incarcerated never return to school. These staggering statistics are combined with the raw cost to states which is often more than $200,000 per year for each child, often ten times the expense of sending a child to college. In order to transform a desperately broken system, the authors identify the need for greater restorative measures that can provide long term healing to a child in order to set them on a positive path. This restoration must be a collective effort of a community of institutions and individuals who accompany the child from isolated incarcerated offender to supported, successful member of a communal society. The Graduation GapAlthough getting a college education remains one of the most powerful sources of economic and social mobility, less than 15 percent of children from low-income families will complete a degree program. However, it has been consistently proven that dignity comes from work. If a college degree is still the primary vehicle that determines long-term successful employability, then the support that community, individuals, and institutions that are precursors, accompaniments, and post-graduation pathways must work in concert to identify barriers and begin to either help young people rise above these hurdles or remove them altogether. It’s clearly in our broad, social interest to ensure that the typical less than $1000 amount for textbooks or a plane ticket back to college after a holiday break doesn’t discourage a student from completing the program that will likely secure his future economic security and mobility.  Predatory LendingPayday lenders and quick loan providers aren’t doing low-income individuals or families any favors. The authors put a fine point on it by calling “the indiscriminate offer of credit...the encouragement of debt servitude.” Although the middle or upper class may often vilify the reasons why low income individuals may need fast cash, the most common uses for these small resources are for basic survival needs (transportation costs to and from work and childcare, food, and electrical bills). And lest we think this issue only impacts a small portion of our society, each year nearly twelve million Americans take out a payday loan, spending more than seven billion dollars in the process. Community-based organizations, extra-governmental regulatory agencies, and faith communities can combat the companies who seek to prey upon the poor by supporting small and community lending groups and microfinance mechanisms offered in local neighborhoods by neighbors who take part in training on how to set up these essential community services. This timely work not only uncovers the important issues that are the lynchpin of ensuring the mobility of the poor, but also provides a vital framework for understanding and engagement that are arguably a poignant lens that will equip policymakers, thought leaders, practitioners, and philanthropy to transcend ideology or political positioning to make a real difference for the issues that matter most to those who deserve our compassion and action to promote a forward-looking flourishing society.